On "Phuntroo"

There is no real and no imaginary, except at a certain distance.

-- Jean Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Science Fiction"

Mankind has, for better or worse, always speculated about its purpose in the Universe. A veritable procession of theologians and philosophers have explored this topic through countless discussions and opinions on this matter (and still do!), as have artists through Time - from the first cave painters to contemporary artists - expressed it through their art. And while all art is eventually imagination yoked to a certain version of reality, it is the form/genre of science fiction that dares to push the boundaries of our imagination into the furthest frontiers. 

Billed as the first true SF movie in Marathi cinema, "Phuntroo" is a fresh take on the question of whether we should treat our sentience as the sum-total of our existence, or use it merely as a tool to reach a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the Universe. The word itself is rooted in the vernacular of machines - a phuntroo (phonetically "foon-tru") is a generic, yet vital, tool that car mechanics use to reach into the heart of the machine. In the hands of writer-director Sujay Dahake, the tool and the machine transform into a journey that explores the relationship between being human and being an automaton that approximates humanity.

Phuntroo is a story of obsessions - an obsession with a human (love), an obsession with a concept (Love), an obsession with creativity - unmindful of the responsibilities it brings. It is the story of Vira (Madan Deodhar), an uber geek in the ultimate geekdom - an engineering college. Mocked by his peers, but respected by his close group of friends, he harbors a crush on Anaya (Ketaki Mategaonkar), a popular girl who also serves as the general secretary on the student body.

Circumstances lead to Vira and Anaya crossing paths, becoming acquaintances, and then friends. Vira tries to convey his feelings to Anaya, but is met with indifference, and finally outright rejection. It seems like a standard plot for a teen-angst movie, but this is where the story takes a turn into the world of SF. Vira accidently stumbles onto a secret project initiated by The Founder (yes, capital letters) of their college, who also happened to be a world-renowned expert in holographic displays, leading a reclusive life. Vira channels his frustration into creating a holographic image of Anaya, as an antidote to his loneliness, and succeeds in doing so after a few attempts. However, he soon finds that his creation is not merely a simulacra, but a simulation of the human intelligence. What happens next is a part-romantic, part-dramatic story that unfolds in two threads - the growing intimacy between Phuntroo (the simulation) and Vira, and the real-world romance between him and Anaya.

The movie is a technical achievement, with director exploring some fantastic visual landscapes accompanied by good (but not stellar) music, and some well-written dialogue. The camera work is top-notch, and innovative lighting and choreography make this one of the films to watch out for come the awards season. 

Both the leads play their parts ably. Madan Deodhar conveys the uncomfortable and awkward existence of a geek with the right balance of mannerisms and behavior. His performance suggests a deeper pain of trauma behind the superficial anger, and the script misses a great opportunity to make more out of it (see below). Ketaki Mategaonkar is perfect in the dual roles of the human and the automaton. Her most compelling scenes take place in the second half of the movie, as the childlike Phuntroo starts "growing up" in the company of her friend (Vira). The movie uses their interaction to get to the heart of this engine -- the relationship between humans and technology, between the representation and the object, between "knowing" and "becoming."

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a "date" conversation between the creator and his creation, where the creation, being a rigid automaton driven by rules, tries to arrive at the difference between men and women - albeit using a cliched metaphor that is ubiquitously available as "data." (The movie is full of in-jokes that address the sensibilities of geeks - a particularly hilarious moment early-on involves a Chetan Bhagat novel, and another involves Sigmund Freud's mother!)
That said, there were a few points that I thought did not work in the movie's favor. Some of these are purely nitpicked issues that the general audience would not care about. But this is how I watch my movies, so here they are:

1. Potrayal of "romance": Call me old-fashioned, but Vira's behavior towards Anaya struck me as far away from any notion of "romance" as possible. It is downright creepy, stalker-like behavior and I cannot provide a line of justification for why such a behavior should merit any attention from her, let alone a soft spot in her heart. I had very high expectations from the second half of the movie - after the first half hinted at schizophrenic and/or manic depressive behavior disorders through supplemental characters. The story could have used this discussion as a good support to show us why Vira is what he is, but instead, the more serious topics are used as props around a climax that feels a bit hurried and not fully motivated. The media portrayal of obsessive Majnu-type lover may have been acceptable for our image of "anti-heroes" a generation ago, but we live in a post-Nirbhayaa world, and I think it is upon us to expect a more responsible movie-making experience from the current (and future) generations of filmmakers. A misunderstood geek does not a stalker make!

2. World Design: Phuntroo is gorgeous, no doubt. Unique camera compositions, choreography and lighting possibilities are explored and utilized to show the world-behind-the-words, and it succeeds to a large extent. But there is a large disconnect between the external world (the college, the labs, the equipment, the gadgets) and the cybernetic. Phuntroo's HUD is downright dazzling, and the scenes where we see the world through her eyes, are worth being put into a design syllabus. However, I am not convinced that the same 'creators' who would work on such wonderful user-interface design not choose to apply their design faculties to the gadgets that they submit to prestigious competitions. The state of the college, or its non-existent R&D lab, do not justify the boisterous claims made during an awards presentation speech. It is a minor disconnect, but an important one for a SF story, where immersion is everything.

3. Cliches galore: To paraphrase a dialog from the film - "Is there a need to be so obvious?" While it is certainly the strength of cinema as both a medium and a vehicle to support an artist's vision, Phuntroo tries to be too many things at the same time. It depicts too many conflicts at a superficial level for any of them to take hold in our imagination. Politics, theology, class and caste structure are paid lip-service in the name of progressive movie-making, but they are not essential elements of the plot, or at least do not appear to be so far. There is too much "show" and not much "tell" in terms of character motivation -- we never find out why Anaya has a turn-around, or the actual text/gist of an email that she receives from Phuntroo, or why the Founder chooses a reclusive lifestyle a stone's throw away from the institute he found, or ... (you get the idea)? Ironically, the only character arc that makes sense, is Phuntroo, as the synthetic intelligence progresses towards a more "natural" consciousness. I am speculating that some key elements were left on the floor during the final edit, and we may see an extended version of the movie that fills up these gaps.

Overall, above nitpicking aside, Phuntroo comes off as a breath of fresh air in an industry moving towards glorification of remakes (and pretty bad ones too!) Personally, I trust the director, and his vision, enough to have confidence that the sequels in the proposed trilogy would only give us better movies as he becomes comfortable in his responsibilities. Count me in for an upgrade - Phuntroo 2.0!